Cursed Words

The FCC just made cussing less costly -- did it fuck up?

By Sarah Vowell
Published August 8, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

old DJ joke: "Fuck! I just said shit! Shit! I just said fuck!" Telling that joke on the air just got a lot cheaper. The Federal Communications Commission is having a sale, slashing prices on "fuck" and "shit," as well as "cocksucker," "motherfucker," "tits," "cunt" and "piss." Last week, the independent
government agency announced that radio and television stations that violate
its ban on indecent and obscene broadcasts will be paying less for each
offense. According to Reuters, the new guidelines charge approximately
$7,000 to violators -- a substantial reduction from the previous $12,500 fine.

What is the FCC telling us? I wanted to ask the agency myself, so I called. And
called. And called and called. I was passed off and ignored and promised
faxes so many times that I have come to believe that the
"Communications" in Federal Communications Commission is meant only ironically. Finally, and I don't know if it was the irritable tone in my voice or what, I was transferred to
Norman, in the Complaints Department. When I asked him what this ruling means,
or if the FCC is making a statement that indecency is less offensive now, or
even what the ruling is based on, he deadpanned, "It's based on the committee's
thinking process."

It's safe to say that money still means something in America. So even if
this ruling is arbitrary or based on some other unknown criteria of "the
committee's thinking process," I'm going out on a limb and inferring that
cussing on the radio is now about $5,500 less bothersome to our moral
watchdogs than it was last month. Conversely, let's also assume that it is
about $5,500 more attractive for some smart-alecky radio DJ to either swear
on air or, better yet, play a curse-ridden song.

Taking requests, DJs? I'll admit that my taste in swear words is as narrow
as my taste in music, which is why to my ears punk rock and the F-word make
such a cute couple. So, if you're keeping your playlist current, why not
spin Atari Teenage Riot's hilarious "Fuck All!" It's everything the Parent's
Music Resource Center warns against: an anti-melody, anti-everything screamfest featuring gratuitous swearing and calls to arms. Its enticingly
literary chorus goes: "Fuck all! Fuck all! Fuck all! Fuck all! Fuck all!
Fuck all! Fuck all! Cut all policemen to pieces!" Or if you prefer golden
oldies from as far back as '94, how about Hole's "Rock Star," a gloriously
pathetic and catty attack on the riot grrrl movement. Just like no one --
not even Elvis -- can match the perfection of Jonathan Richman executing a
finely wrought "well," no one has a way with "Fuck you!" like Courtney Love.

Not that DJs at stations with the cash to back a four-letter spending
spree could bring themselves to do so -- you can't teach old ears new tricks.
During my stint as a college radio DJ, I was trying so hard to keep the
linguistic shit from hitting the fans that my nerves couldn't even handle
putting on a Parliament song; the band was always talking about how you
should "give up the funk" or how "P-Funk wants to get funked up." Every time they used
a noun or verb, I cringed. Living in fear of fucking up, I never got the funk. And not because I'm above cursing, or support censorship, or always do as I'm told: Fuck that shit! I just didn't
want my little shoestring station to have to shell out thousands of dollars
just because I was too lazy to listen all the way through the new one from
Tree People.

I asked Jim DeRogatis, host of the music talk show "Sound Opinions" on KSTP (1500 AM)
in Minneapolis what indecent song he would play if he had $7,000 to splurge.
"It seems to me that the only thing that would be worth that kind of money would be something like those recently unearthed tapes of Lyndon Johnson discussing the Vietnam
conflict in his usual colorful manner," he said. "Or parts of the famous Nixon tapes. Or
maybe the tapes that will no doubt one day surface of Reagan plotting and
scheming about the 'bleep-this' and 'bleep-that' contras or Iranians. Heck,
airing that sort of thing beats the hell out of playing 'Louie Louie' any

He's right: In rock 'n' roll, the lewdness of the sound and the
performers' steamy visuals have always overshadowed the paltriness of lyrics.
Which is why the powers-that-be should ban things like Polly Jean Harvey's voice,
or Syd Straw's stare, instead of the status quo boredom of potty-mouth Liz
Phair, who makes "fuck" sound about as subversive as organizing her
sock drawer.

"I'd pay $7,000 to hear the Dead Kennedys' 'Too Drunk to Fuck' on the radio
in a second." So says Jesse Sheidlower, author of "The F Word," a
wry lexicography of all things fucked. He's well aware of the arbitrariness
with which curse words are designated. He says, "It's worth pointing out
that of the seven dirty words, one appears in the Bible. So according to the
FCC, you couldn't read the Bible cover to cover on the air." Which word?
"Piss," in 2 Kings 18:27: " But Rab-shakeh said unto them, Hath my master
sent me to thy master, and to thee, to speak these words? hath he not sent
me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and
drink their own piss with you." Sure, it's weird -- but not exactly X-rated.
Sheidlower jokes, "I would like someone to read it and have the FCC crack

That holy passage only underlines how coincidental "bad" words are. There's
something so reassuring about the FCC putting price tags on them -- as if
they're dressing up certain expressions in little black hats, so we can
identity them as villains. You can't say "tits" on the radio, but you can
say "Pamela Anderson Lee," and what's the difference? A film commentator
can't say "shit," so she'll replace it with "Air Force One" instead. Rush
Limbaugh can't say "cunt," so he uses "Hillary Rodham Clinton" as a

Who's to blame for making us broadcast in code? The same guy who's
responsible for the biblical piss passage; the same sick joker who gave us a
bunch of fun swear words and then -- Christ! -- told us not to take His name in
vain; the same guy who's always to blame for every last tragedy and quagmire:
God, that's who. He's been fucking us over wordwise since way back in
Genesis, when he had us build the first radio transmitter, the tower of Babel.
Here's proof, in a Babel bible passage you can read on the air:
"because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth." At
least the motherfucker admits it.

Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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